The Freemasons in France during the German occupation.
The Freemasons were banned by the Vichy Government from the start, on 19 August 1940.
The defeat had been complete and lightning fast; the government had fled from Paris, then from the Loire (where Churchill visited it) on to Bordeaux. The choice was between armistice and capitulation. Then the choice was continuing to have a national government or giving that up.
A new French government was improvised, with a historically popular but marginal figure, Marshall Pétain. He was willing to take on the inglorious role of leader of a defeated country, for the time it would take for peace to come.
Once in power, he set about reassuring the population: he would explain to them why the country had been defeated, expose those responsible, and offer an alternative organisation of society, one that would make the motherland strong again.
This was the ‘divine surprise’ of Charles Maurras. That phrase is sometimes pretended to mean that the right wing thought that being beaten and occupied by the Nazis was a divine surprise. What Maurras meant was that he was very pleasantly surprised that Pétain had political ideas, which he was prepared to put into practice, ideas which corresponded to Maurras’s own ideas. He had not expected it. The 569 Parliamentarians who had voted full powers to Pétain probably had not either. Pétain had not been active in politics and was not a member of a party.
So Pétain and his government set about explaining the defeat. They could not simply say that the army had failed to foresee the unforeseeable German plan of attack.
So instead they blamed the government which preceded the war. It had declared war but not prepared for it.
That government was Republican, but by 1940 that was accepted. But it was also dominated by the Radical party, the Party that had turned Catholic France into a secular country.
After the end of the Second Empire in 1871, the right wing had been monarchist, when there was still a chance of establishing a constitutional monarchy, but gradually it rallied the Republic. The right wing had been consistently beaten and put on the defensive since the mid 1870s. They had witnessed the separation of Church and State, led in Parliament by A. Briand, a mason, the end of the dominance of Church schools, with free, compulsory secular schools established by J. Ferry, a mason, divorce legislation, pushed through by E. Naquet, a Jewish scientist, religious orders banned and expelled from France by E. Combes, a mason, etc and been powerless to stop any of it. They saw Freemasonry as the anti-Catholic ideology which animated liberal politics, and Freemasons as the devils who had destroyed the foundations of society. They would eliminate them from public office and roll back the tide of so-called progress. Protestants had taken part in the secular movement, giving up their own protestant teacher training colleges and their 1000 Protestant schools, to promote the establishment of secular schooling. But there was no question of attacking Protestants.
French Freemasons are different from English or American ones because in 1877 the most numerous obedience, the Grand Orient, decided that it was no longer compulsory for Masons to believe in a personal God and the immortality of the soul, and for meetings to invoke God, and for oaths to be taken over an open Bible. English Freemasonry then outlawed the French one, refusing it the title of ‘regular’, and forbidding contact with it. One minority FM obedience in France remained ‘regular’. The other obediences maintained contact with the Grand Orient and were excommunicated by England as a consequence.
Since 1848 the motto of the Grand Orient was the motto of the Republic: Liberté Egalité Fraternité. Its philosophy was the search for enlightenment, humanism and progress and a rejection of superstition and obscurantism. Grand Orient means Great Eastern, the East being where the sun, the light, rises. The Grand Orient today publishes a magazine called “Humanisme”; its emblems are the tricolour flag and the bust of the Republic (Marianne).
The belief that FM was the ideology of the IIIrd Republic was not delusional on the part of Vichy. FM was nicknamed “The Church of the Republic”.
According to Ligou, a FM historian and a socialist, the majority of masons supported the Popular Front of 1936. The Grand Orient marched officially in the 14 July parade of 1936. Some socialist MPs were masons. The topics discussed in the lodges included the content of the programmes of trade unions, the situation in the Soviet Union, the colonies and a desired progressive emancipation; the colonial loges condemned abuses committed against the local populations. French FM helped refugee Spanish FM.
Some facts had established the reality of mason influence on French society; for example the filing cards scandal of 1904. The Minister for War, a general and a mason, had established a system of filing cards, to facilitate the promotion of republicans at the expense of clerical, right wing officers. The cards detailed the officers’ political opinions and religious convictions, and were established through information provided by lodges throughout the country, and in particular in garrison towns. This was found out and there was a major scandal. This specifically involved the Masonry as a network of Brothers. Other scandals involved masons on a personal level, or by implication.
The Stavisky affair (1934) involved masons, and since it involved public finances, the fact that the President of the Council of Ministers was a mason was pointed out as a contributing factor. Some masons were Jewish, so there was talk of a judeo-masonic plot, the combination being a constant theme. Besides Masonry is international! Foreign powers must have been at work. (If a digression may be allowed here, clericals and anticlericals accused each other of being the representatives of foreign powers: one argument of the anticlericals against Catholicism was its international nature: it was the Black International! The Jesuits’ influence was especially sinister because it came from abroad.)
The Cartel des Gauches (Left alliance, not actually left-wing), came to power in 1924 with the open support and participation of masons; it dabbled in financial measures and was promptly brought down by financial interests, showing that masons do not yield the real power in crucial areas. When lists of members were published from 1941, members were shown to be mostly primary school teachers, post office and railway employees, and tradesmen. After this 1924 failure, Freemasons decided to make their involvement less public.
An anecdote from 1924 illustrates the place of masons in French society. The Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg, back in Paris despite a ban, and trying to get permission to stay, was advised by a friend to go and see the head of the Grand Orient lodge. He was received in a friendly manner and told that he should go and see the Prefect of Police, another mason. There he was received not so kindly, but the upshot was that he stayed in Paris.
There was an anti-mason campaign in the 1930s; in 1935 parliament discussed banning it. (It had been banned in Portugal that year.)
Important politicians who were Freemasons were Léon Blum (Popular Front prime minister), E. Daladier, E. Herriot, C. Chautemps. Blum and Daladier were tried by Vichy for being responsible for starting and losing the war; during their trial at Riom their membership of the Freemasonry was not mentioned, (nor, for that matter, the fact that Léon Blum was Jewish). In 1940, of the 569 parliamentarians assembled at Vichy, 85 were masons, of which 20 were among the 80 deputies and senators who voted against giving Pétain full powers.
Some influential organisations were closely linked with FM: the League of Human Rights, and the League for Education.
Vichy set out to expose the Freemasons to public scrutiny as the secret power behind previous governments. It published magazines, held touring exhibitions, organised conferences which also toured the country, and made a film. It relied on curiosity provoked by the secrecy, the rumours about rituals, costumes, coffins etc and rumours that Masons helped each other get on to the detriment of the non-initiated. Exhibitions and lectures were well attended.
FM temples and other buildings in occupied Paris were taken over by official anti-mason bureaus, to use as offices. The German occupiers went through the confiscated material first, and kept the keys of all buildings and offices. The occupiers soon found that there was no wealth to speak of, and no links with Britain. They lost interest, while still finding useful the information gathering network, especially since the anti-mason legislation targeted, not Freemasonry as such, but secret societies in general.
A large multi centred administration grew around the endeavour. The head of the Bibliothèque Nationale (The ‘National Library’) was sacked because he was Jewish (he was reinstated after the war) and he was replaced by a historian specialised in anti-mason studies. The confiscated FM documents and objects were stored in the Library, to be catalogued. A museum was created.
The material included lists of names of people who had been dignitaries; those were published in the Journal Officiel (Official government publication, featuring the text of laws etc, mainly sent to administrations), and from there published in the local press. This was haphazard: Since the compilation went back to 1920, it featured men long dead, or who had long left the masons; people complained that so and so, a well-known mason, was not on the list; in other cases, the names revealed were those of people well liked and appreciated in their area.
The ‘purge’ of Masons from the civil service led to unintended consequences.
All civil servants, and that included teachers, had to sign a document saying that they were not masons. When Vichy dismissed dignitaries from public service, the result was the disruption of public administration, especially in the colonies, to the point that Vichy had to bring back sacked administrators. The law of 10 November 1941 allowed people who had left the masons a long time ago to keep their post, as well as masons who said they were now ready to serve the new order. An exception had already been made for a couple of Vichy ministers who happened to be masons.
When Laval, who had been dismissed in December 1940, came back to power in April 1942, with Pétain as mere head of State, he did all he could to minimise the anti-mason effort. He was not ideologically opposed to them; he had lectured at Masonic meetings, and was in good terms with his local lodges. Many masons were reinstated then.
On the other hand, the development of the war gave the anti-mason campaign new themes: Masons were accused of being Gaullists (De Gaulle has re-established masonry in Algeria in August 1943), of handing over our colonies to the enemy, Britain; at home they ‘favoured the black market, they undermined Pétain’s policies.’
The antimasonic theme was the least important of all Vichy propaganda themes. A stock of 1078 propaganda posters and other illustrated material, studied by the historian Dominique Rossignol, showed that in first place, with by far the greatest number of images, was the campaign against England and America; in second place came a positive: praise of France the motherland; number 3 was antibolshevism and number 4 another positive: defence of the family. Anti freemasonry came last.)
Freemasons, especially dignitaries, were disturbed and publicly exposed. Around 1500 lost their posts. 6000 were arrested. 989 were deported, not as masons but because of their Resistance activities, of which 549 died.
After the war 130 people were tried for their anti-mason activities; the then head of the National Library was sentenced to hard labour for life. He escaped while in hospital and was let alone after that.
Germany paid for the refitting of some mason premises which had been looted or damaged.
Masons are still today the target of criticism: When scandals occur, some point out that those involved include masons, for example the Elf affair; books are still being written alleging the excessive influence of Masonic networks, in particular among magistrates.
The Grand Orient on its website still claims a political role in society, as a guarantor of the secularity of the state and of equal rights.
Attacking the Freemasons was attacking the progressive liberal ideology (Liberté Egalité Fraternité) and trying to replace it with old-fashioned priorities: Travail, Famille, Patrie— Labour, Family, Motherland. For Labour, Vichy attempted a Charter of Labour with a view to improve the lot of the working class; nothing came of it. The Family was missing 1.5 million men in POW camps, households lived in penury and women had to work. As for the Motherland, it had never been so low. Only Pétain and some of his entourage believed in this new order, and they were soon marginalised and their ideas ignored.
“Freemasonry and the United Irishmen”
Reprints from the Northern Star 1792-3
Win an Introduction on Freemason in Ireland by Brendan Clifford.
In this pamphlet, Brendan Clifford wrote:
“The Catholic Church not very long ago used to teach that the modern world of sin and error is the product of the Freemason conspiracy. While that might not be entirely true, I think it is true that the Freemason conspiracy went into the making of the modern world, and that the liberal dimension of the modern world could not have developed without Freemasonry.”
“One of the most remarkable things about the 1688 Revolution was the way it subverted the social force of theological zeal. The history of the 17th century England is theocratic. But 18th century England is suddenly liberal.
In the generation after 1688, the English state was grounded in a new body politic and a new condition of public opinion, and the force of the theocratic impulse was marginalised in the political sphere. And that new public opinion seems to me to have been made effective by the institution of Freemasonry, which gave the new, sceptical oligarchy a network of support throughout society and a countervailing force against theocracy.”
This process seems to have happened in France two hundred years later. The Republican order founded itself against the theocratic forces, with the help of Freemasonry. One wonders however whether the theocratic forces in 1880 were as strong as they were in England in 1688, and whether the fight against it was really necessary to install a new liberal order. It may have been. But by that time a new element had appeared in the society: an industrial working class. They had demonstrated their strength in 1848 and in 1871, and had to be hemmed in. The anticlerical struggle was a displacement activity, which allowed the liberals to avoid social issues. Not all Socialists were blind to this. Some complained that they were given “du curé à bouffer” (priests to eat) instead of bread, and that they had had enough. Some socialists analysed that the Dreyfus affair was an internal bourgeois quarrel (Jews, Protestants and free thinkers against Catholics), and nothing to do with what mattered to the working class. When the great socialist leader Jean Jaurès started speaking for the revision of the trial, he was told by the party to desist. More on that in the next issue.